The Threat of Biological Weapons

Ken Alibek
Ken Alibek; drawing by David Levine

“Science without conscience is the death of the soul.”
—Peter Abelard (1079-1144)


Men and women of good will talk of a common humanity, a common empathy with people everywhere who have hopes and sorrows similar to their own. Ken Alibek’s book is about a common inhumanity, a gigantic effort that employed tens of thousands of people to find ways of inflicting the most excruciatingly painful diseases and deaths on millions of men, women, and children in the hated capitalist world on the pretense or in the belief that they threatened the beloved motherland, the Soviet Union.

Biohazard is a candid autobiography of an ambitious Kazakh physician who helped to create and direct the largest and most advanced biological warfare program in the world. In the “Oath of a Soviet Physician” he had sworn “to do no harm.” He knew, he writes, “that the results of my studies could be used to kill people, but I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile this knowledge with the pleasure I derived from research.”

The prologue sets the scene:

On a bleak island in the Aral Sea, one hundred monkeys are tethered to posts set in parallel rows stretching out toward the horizon. A muffled thud breaks the stillness. Far in the distance, a small metal sphere lifts into the sky then hurtles downward, rotating, until it shatters in a second explosion.

Some seventy-five feet above the ground, a cloud the color of dark mustard begins to unfurl, gently dissolving as it glides down toward the monkeys. They pull at their chains and begin to cry. Some bury their heads between their legs. A few cover their mouths or noses, but it is too late: they have already begun to die.

At the other end of the island, a handful of men in biological protective suits observe the scene through binoculars, taking notes. In a few hours, they will retrieve the still-breathing monkeys and return them to cages where the animals will be under continuous examination for the next several days until, one by one, they die of anthrax or tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, or plague.

These are the tests I supervised throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. They formed the foundation of the Soviet Union’s spectacular breakthroughs in biological warfare.

During World War II and the early stages of the cold war that followed, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union developed and field-tested biological weapons; but the United Kingdom gave them up in 1950 and in November 1969 President Nixon unilaterally renounced them, and in February 1970 he also renounced the development of toxins for military purposes. The United States stated that it had destroyed its stockpiles, converted the biological weapons laboratories to purely defensive purposes, and converted the factories providing the weapons to peaceful uses. There is no evidence that…

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